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Emperor Akihito

Emperor Akihito addresses the nation at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on March 16, 2011, after the powerful earthquake and tsunami that hit northeastern Japan. Photo: AP/Imperial Household Agency of Japan

The world was watching when Japanese Emperor Akihito took to the airwaves earlier this month to address his people. Akihito’s recorded response to the natural disasters that have ravaged his country was his first-ever televised speech. And though it was short and simple, it earned Akihito praise in Japan, where the emperor is still widely popular as a symbol of the nation’s royal past.

But in the United States, we don’t hear much about Emperor Akihito because, let’s face it, the reserved Japanese royal family is no headline-grabbing House of Windsor. But we wanted to know more about Japan’s low-profile emperor and the imperial line from which he descends. Here’s what we turned up:

1. They don’t call him Akihito.

In Japan, the emperor doesn’t go by his given name. Emperor Akihito was raised as Prince Tsugu and is now officially referred to as “His Majesty the Emperor” or Tennō Heika, meaning “heavenly emperor.”

After a Japanese emperor’s death, he is referred to by the name of the era over which he reigned. The emperor we call Hirohito is referred to in Japan as Emperor Shōwa. Akihito will go down in history as Emperor Heisei, which, loosely translated, means “establishing peace.”

2. His position is mostly symbolic.

Hirohito, or Emperor Showa the 124th emperor, after his enthronement ceremony in 1928.

Since the end of World War II, Japanese royalty has been almost powerless. After the war, the American military forced Emperor Hirohito to renounce his claim to divinity. Then the 1947 Japanese Constitution, written under pressure from the American government, demoted the emperor to a “symbol of the state and of the unity of the people” and stripped the position of all “powers related to government.” Unlike royalty in other countries, the emperor of Japan is not even the nominal head of state.

Akihito’s actions are tightly constrained by the Imperial Household Agency, the bureaucratic apparatus that manages the affairs of the royal family. He makes only occasional public appearances, spending most of his time within the grounds of the Imperial Palace hosting important visitors and presiding over official events.

3.  He is a member of the oldest royal family in the world.

The Japanese imperial family claims descent from the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami through Emperor Jimmu, the legendary first emperor of Japan, who is said to have begun his rule on February 11, 660 BC. Historians have not been able to determine whether Jimmu was a real historical figure or a composite.

Emperor Komei, the 121st emperor of Japan, reigned from 1846 to 1867. He died when he was only 35.

The Imperial Household Agency has been reluctant to allow archaeologists into the imperial tombs, which are sacred sites where the emperor’s envoys pray and conduct ritual ceremonies every year. There are tombs in Japan attributed to each of the 124 emperors preceding Akihito, including Jimmu, but at present the tombs’ contents remain a mystery. Imperial officials may also be worried that excavations could confirm rumors that early Japanese rulers were of Chinese or Korean ancestry.

Emperor Akihito made history and upset some Japanese nationalists when he acknowledged a Korean ancestor during a 2001 press conference.

According to Japanese tradition, the 77-year-old Emperor Akihito is the 125th emperor in an unbroken line of hereditary succession which dates back to the reign of Emperor Jimmu. His wife, Empress Michiko, is the daughter of a wealthy industrialist and, because of the relaxation of imperial household laws after World War II, the first-ever commoner to marry into the imperial family. The emperor’s son, Crown Prince Naruhito, is the heir to the Japanese throne.

4. He has been a groundbreaker in the Imperial Palace.

When the Japanese surrendered to the Allied powers at the end of World War II, Emperor Hirohito delivered a famously obtuse speech in which he declared that “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”

Akihito’s buttoned-up predecessors spoke a highly stylized Japanese incomprehensible to Japanese commoners. In his message to the victims of the tsunami and earthquake, the Emperor spoke formally but in modern Japanese.

In some ways, Akihito’s modern persona was decided for him. As the first new emperor to ascend to the throne since Japan’s defeat in World War II, he is the first emperor who has never been worshipped or given political power. He is the first emperor who has been allowed to marry a commoner, though it speaks to his modern mindset that he was also the first to do so.

When Akihito was crown prince, he married Michiko Shoda, a commoner, in 1959.

But Akihito has gone beyond his predecessors in his efforts to connect with the Japanese people and to serve as an ambassador to the rest of the world. In 1995, he donned a sweater and windbreaker to personally comfort victims of the Kobe earthquake. He has offended some Japanese hard-liners by offering apologies to countries wronged by Japan in the past, including those that suffered under his father’s rule during World War II.

5. He is a part-time ichthyologist.

Though Emperor Akihito studied political science at Tokyo’s Gakushuin University (briefly — he didn’t graduate), he better is known for his work in biology. As of 2007, Akihito had published 38 peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals including Science and Nature. He is an honorary member of London’s prestigious Linnean Society and has been awarded the Royal Society’s King Charles II Medal, an honor for “foreign Heads of State or Government who have made an outstanding contribution to furthering scientific research in their country.” His work with the tiny goby fish (The Times called him a “world authority – perhaps the only authority – on classifying the goby fish”) was recognized in 2006 when two researchers named a new species of goby Exyrias akihito. Akihito had collected specimens of the fish and sent them to the researchers for identification.

The emperor is also listed as a collaborator on the book Fishes of Japan with pictorial keys to the species and, according to the Imperial Household Agency’s website, managed to attend “the monthly meeting of the Fish Systematics Seminar” six times last year.


  • Cassie

    A very interesting and informational article indeed. My only question at this time would be how the Emperor feels about shark-fin soup. -Cassie

  • Brooklen Ashleigh

    I really enjoyed this article; it’s made me realize how little I know about Japanese royalty (as a person who has learned Japanese, and who plans to study abroad there). It’s rather incredible that Akihito is a scientist, as well. Also, I’m interested in hearing/reading the stylized Japanese that the former emperors spoke in! :)

  • jenna

    yeah i remember researching the imperial family. the goby named after him lead me to one undeniable conclusion. Tennou Heika is a badass!

  • Moses Sunshine Musoke

    Hey Brooklen, if you’re looking to do some Japanese lessons online before you go, you could do a lot worse than .
    Group lessons from only 3 bucks each – Bargain !

  • Mr Joseph W Liberty

    How do I send a gift to the Emperor to give to his wife, as a gesture of good will. The gift is a priceless necklace hand carved of ivory, of an emperor and emperorist, How do I get it through custom’s declared value “0″ 
    polynuser@aol:disqus .com
    J.W. Liberty

  • Ganesh Man Lama

    The water creates energy in 03 stage with independent cycle power…Edited

  • Queen

    I am The Queen also known as QueenLady!
    I spent over 348 trillion dollars, paying for everything, to get all the royal families to come and pick me up. Then I sent them 500 million dollars to spend for food, travel, and whatever they needed while they are here. They begin arriving here in Boise, Idaho on April 16th 2012 and have been here every since. They have been having fun and joyriding around Boise Idaho and surrounding areas instead of taking me to do my job as Queen. I am the current Queen of All the Countries and I have to get to Europe on time to deactivate the bomb that will start a chain of explosions around the world killing everyone in its path.
    My husband that I was married to at an early age put this bomb project together and had over 20 years to do it. I know my husband very well because I was heavily educated at a young age. My husband was never the type to play around with things like this. He considered this to be similar to what we call “the Fourth of July”.  Therefore there will never be only one blast there will be many and will go off at random locations around the world. My husband was a French King and it likes challengings people the way his culture is difficult to learn.
    Former Queen of England Elizabeth II and the familys from Japan and China The Ming and Ching Dynasties are here and are suppose to pick me up so I can stop and prevent the chain of bombs from going off. All of this will begin May 1st 2012 and will not stop until the last bomb goes off. No one knows exactly how many bombs my husband has set up, but we all know that the trigger to the 1st bomb is in my bank in Lisbon, Europe. And that is why it is mandatory that I get there on time to stop it, before it begins.
    I am extremely advanced in education and technology and always have been. The security system on my bank prevents anyone other than myself to enter it. Therefore I am the only one who can get to the bomb and my husband educated me about bombs. Therefore I am the most qualified to deactivate the bomb and I need you to let everyone around the world know; what the royal family members have been doing since they have been here.
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    Once I have deactivated the bomb safely I must then replenish all government assistance programs alone; because I have all the money.